Federal and state authorities are investigating the deaths of 13 bald eagles whose bodies were found strewn around a Maryland field over the weekend in what they said was the largest bald eagle die-off in that state in 30 years.
Maryland Natural Resources Police made the gruesome discovery on February 20 after responding to a call from someone who had been out seeking shed antlers and instead had encountered four eagle carcasses. Searching the area, the officers found nine more, according to a press release from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). The eagles varied in age, natural resources police spokesperson Candy Thomson said.
“Our officers searched the area around the farm and in total we found 13 bald eagles,” Thomson told NBC News. “Three were mature, two were in the process of maturing and the rest were immature.”
The USFWS and several nonprofit organizations are offering a total $10,000 reward for information leading to a conviction. Though the cause of death is unclear, the birds suffered no outward signs of trauma, so the main theory is poisoning, either intentional or accidental.
“There were no obvious signs of trauma with these birds,” Thomson told the Baltimore Sun. “A working theory is poisoning.”
It could be, she said, that someone had poisoned rodents, and the eagles had eaten the carcasses. Another possibility, she told the Baltimore Sun, is if a field had been sprayed with a chemical that could harm the birds.
In addition to being sacred among Native peoples, the eagle is the national bird of the United States, and though no longer considered endangered, it is still federally protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (violating it carries up to $100,000 in fines) and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (potential $15,000 in fines), the USFWS noted. In addition to fines, perpetrators can face up to a year in prison, the USFWS said.
The birds’ bodies were shipped on February 22 to a USFWS forensics laboratory in Oregon for necropsies and X-rays, The New York Times reported. Even if the raptors were poisoned, it could have been the byproduct of attempts to kill foxes that prey on chicken farms, USFWS spokesperson Catherine Hibbard told The New York Times, with some people using illegal poisons.
The $10,000 reward is being offered by a combination of groups: The Phoenix Wildlife Center Inc., a wildlife rehabilitation center for raptors, songbirds and small mammals, and the USFWS are each contributing $2,500. The Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust are putting forth an additional $5,000, the USFWS said.
The Fish and Wildlife service asks anyone with information to call Special Agent John LaCorte with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement in Cambridge, Maryland, at 410-228-2476, or the Maryland Natural Resources Police Hotline at 800-628-9944.